Nuclear Modernization Doesn’t Have to Break the Bank

maxresdefaultBy: Cassandra Peterson

Nuclear modernization is happening. That fact isn’t up for debate. The process, which involves upgrading, altering, and rehabilitating the operational capabilities of the United States’ nuclear arsenal is forecast to cost up to 1 trillion dollars over the next thirty years. The intimidating price tag is touted as a necessary evil in keeping America safe. Yet recently published reports from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and the Center for American Progress (CAP) shed new light on why exactly that isn’t the case. The former provides insightful analysis as to how the cost of modernization skyrocketed, while the latter analyzes what can be done about it.

CSIS’s Defense Modernization Plans through the 2020s: Addressing the Bow Wave expands upon how the defense budget got so out of hand. With wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as multiple counterinsurgency threats across the past few decades, the United States military hasn’t experienced true peacetime in years. Absent the windfall of funding expected during an operational break that never arrived, budgetary planners have pushed necessary nuclear life extension programs and renovations back. The resultant surge in future expenses is termed the modernization bow wave.

Much like the wave that creates a drag against the hulls of large boats, the budgetary bow wave is massive in size. It will peak in the 2020s, when spending for all three legs of the nuclear triad is predicted to be its highest. Projects expected to culminate that decade include the Long Range Strike-Bomber, the Ohio Class Ballistic Nuclear Submarine replacement program (SSBN-X), and the replacement of the Minuteman II Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM).

There is only a fifty percent probability that any of these overhauls will stay within projected budget constraints, which means pricy cost overruns on top of anticipated expenses. There is no monetary wiggle room with which to compensate, as caps produced by the Budget Control Act limit how much Congress can approve for defense spending each year. Consequently, if even one or two projects exceed cost estimates, it could result in cuts in other parts of the nuclear infrastructure, involuntarily dictating the shape of the future arsenal, or it could negatively impact other non-nuclear defense priorities.

Undersecretary for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, Frank Kendall, was recently quoted in an article for Defense News, stating, “There is no way I can see that we can sustain the force structure and have a reasonable modernization program unless we get more money in the defense budget.” In the same article, Principal Deputy Undersecretary of Defense, Brian McKeon, noted “We’re looking at that big bow wave and wondering how the heck we’re going to pay for it, and probably thanking our lucky stars we won’t be here to answer the question.”

As a result of the extensive budgetary pressure, the Pentagon will need to make tough decisions about what to prioritize. The tradeoff between nuclear and conventional weapons limits what the defense budget can cover. Funneling more money into nuclear modernization means that less goes towards combatting threats such as ISIL or buying protective gear for troops on foreign soil. This demonstrates that reallocating funds from other defense interests is not the solution.

Harrison poses that the only ways to counteract the modernization bow wave are to increase the defense budget or get to work reprioritizing and cutting projects as soon as possible. The CAP paper, entitled Setting Priorities for Nuclear Modernization, presents a series of suggestions with which to make the process more manageable while maintaining the ceiling presented by New START, formally known as the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. These suggestions include reducing the number of planned SSBN-X, pausing or cancelling the new cruise missile known as the Long Range Standoff weapon (LRSO), eliminating the tactical nuclear mission, and gradually modernizing – but downsizing – ICBM forces.

Authors Adam Mount and Lawrence Korb denounce the nuclear status quo, backing up their claims with compelling arguments, including:

  • Less Subs: Current modernization plans force the United States to maintain the sea leg of the triad with 10 Ohio Class Ballistic Nuclear Submarines (SSBN), deploying an 11th and 12th after nearly a decade. This affirms that a lower number of subs will still act as a successful deterrent.
  • No New Cruise Missile: The new nuclear cruise missile’s range of abilities may augment the air-based leg of the triad, but that augmentation is a want, not a need. The U.S. will retain gravity bombs, which remain an adequate form of air-based defense.
  • Remove tactical nukes from Europe: The assurance provided by the tactical nuclear mission is false. In the event of a Russian attack, the United States would require months to mobilize tactical weapons, way too late for NATO troops on the ground.
  • Downsize the ICBM Force: The flight pattern of ICBM forces, no matter the target, takes them over the Russian mainland. This could send the wrong signal to Russia, inviting mistaken aggression.

Reducing the nuclear arsenal is controversial, simply because the United States’ inclination is to exactly match technologically capable opponents. That match-for-match mindset is illogical and a drain on defense spending. The CAP report’s recommendations allow the United States to maintain a credible deterrence structure, retaining adequate second-strike capability (the ability to retaliate in the event that another country begins a nuclear attack).

Over thirty years, the changes listed above could save up to $120 billion. Don’t believe it? CAP also created an interactive page where individuals can personally view the cost of designing their own nuclear arsenal.

CAP’s plan is a good one. It allows the United States to maintain credible deterrence while making much needed budgetary reductions. Whether Congress follows the model or not, it is clear that some cuts need to be made. Tradeoffs in conventional weapons or other reallocations of funds are not the answer, and without modifications, current plans will cost taxpayers millions for projects that, with overruns, might never see completion. It is up to President Obama and his administration to enact change, before modernization begins.